Languages & Location

Making Sense of Meanings

This section is intended to help those who are unfamiliar with the language of a particular area in Ghana to make sense of some of the more common place name constructions to be found there.

Nearly all the languages of Ghana belong to two main families, Kwa and Gur, shown in green and blue on the map. These are classified under a larger group known as the Volta-Congo languages (see Ethnologue).

Nine languages have the status of being government-sponsored. These are:
Kwa: Akan, Dangme, Ewe, Ga, Gonja, Nzema
Gur:   Dagaare/Waale, Dagbani, Kasem

The sub-pages show place names in some of these language areas. Understanding the meaning of a place name is only half of the job of the toponymist. The other half is to discover the origin - how and why that particular name was chosen.
Acknowledgement: Languages of Ghana from Ethnologue    
Turning Symbols into Sounds
Ghanaian languages use some familiar letters for special sounds, just as ch is used as a single sound in English, and some unfamiliar letters to avoid the confusion that would occur with having a single letter to represent more than one sound, as with the letter 'o' in many English words.

Digraph symbols:
In the Akan language group, one of the most difficult sounds for non-speakers to acquire is the tw sound, which can be daunting because it occurs in the name of the predominant dialect, Twi. This is illustrated in some of the old texts, e,g, J.G.Christaller's "A Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Language called Tshi (Chwee, Tŵi)". A close approximation might be obtained by attempting to say tchw as a single sound. The dw sound is similar, but voiced from the beginning. Other combinations, which are less problematical are hy which is like English sh, ky like ch, and gy like j.

An additional complication is that different language groups have used different ways of representing sounds. In Ewe, ts is similar to the English ch, and dz is similar to  j.

IPA symbols:
One way of avoiding ambiguity is by using the International Phonetic Alphabet, and most Ghanaian languages use some of these symbols in standard text. In the GPN database they are used in the Meaning (e.g. see Nkawkaw), and sometimes the Origin, sections to help make the pronunciation clearer. The most commonly used symbols are ɛ (short e as in bet), ɔ (short o, half-way between the vowels in pot and port ), and ŋ (ng as in singing, with no voiced g).

Practice versus Principle

It is common to see some of the place names of Ghana written with different spellings. There is a number of reasons for this.

1. For historical, technological and international reasons the special symbols now included in Ghana language alphabets are not used in place name signs, road signs, or maps. This means that the sounds to which they correspond have had to be represented by Roman letters (the normal English alphabet), and there is no agreed unique way of doing this. The history of orthography, or ‘correct writing’, in Ghana spans over a hundred years. Notable milestones have been the publication of Lepsius’s Standard Alphabet for Reducing Unwritten Languages and Foreign Graphic Systems to a Uniform Orthography in European Letters (1855, 1863) and the establishment of a common orthography for all the Akan dialects by the Akan Orthography Committee in 1978, revised by the Bureau of Ghana Languages, Accra, in 1995 (launched 1997). It is understandable therefore that in the intervening period different habits and practices would have evolved for the spelling of place names.

The most well-known towns in Ghana are often those which present the most difficulty to any program of standardisation, because they are the ones which have been in common usage before experts and committees made their recommendations. An excerpt from Christaller’s ‘Prefatory Remarks’ to C.C.Reindorf’s History of the Gold Coast and Asante (1895) illustrates this well: “We also write Akra (as many English writers did and do), and not Accra, because the "c" is excluded from the spelling of African names, the doubling of consonants is against a fundamental law of most Negro languages, and the stress lies on the last syllable. The name "Akra" has been framed by Europeans from the Tshi name "Nkrah"; the native name is "Ga". Since all the other native names are treated uniformly, it would be awkward to retain Ashantee, Coomassie, Accra, Yariba etc. because they were written so in 1817. The spelling and explanation of African names and other words are the very weakest points in Bowdich's excellent book.” 

Three old maps showing how the spelling of Accra has changed.

The maps shown here illustrate how difficult it is to impose linguistic principles on the practice of the public. Ultimately 'Akra' reverted to 'Accra' - the 1906 map even gives both spellings. In the last century there were further attempts to address the issue, notably Jack Berry’s The place-names of Ghana : problems of standardization in an African territory¹, published by the School of Oriental and African Languages, London in 1958, the year after Ghana’s independence. However, the fact that even today, the spelling of the nation’s capital city is officially ‘Accra’, and that of the capital of the Region of ‘Ashanti’ (not ‘Asante’) is ‘Kumasi’ (not ‘Kumase’) is an indication of the difficulty with which accepted usage can be brought into line with accepted principles.

Other examples are plentiful. In Akan place names 'ɔ' is often represented as ‘aw’, as in Nkawkaw, and Asukawkaw. The fact that ‘w’ is also used as a consonant following ‘a’, as in Kumawu and Fawumang, adds to the confusion for the uninitiated. In Ewe names, the same sound is often represented by ‘or’, as in Atorkor and Klikor. The common suffix ‘-koƒe’ meaning ‘hamlet, village’ in Ewe names shows a double difficulty, because the bilabial sound ‘ƒ’ is sometimes represented as ‘f’ and sometimes ‘p’. Thus the forms ‘-kofe’, ‘-kope’, ‘-korpe’ are all in use.

2. Another source of spelling variation comes from contraction. Many place names are traditionally held to have been formed from comments made by settlers or founders based on their life experiences. Often it is merely an extract of the comment that is represented in the name. This then undergoes corruption with time. As the generations pass, pronunciation will 
gradually change. When it becomes necessary to make a written reference to the place, the writer will attempt to represent what is heard, perhaps without the aid of any authority to aid the spelling. This is likely to lead to variation, particularly if the work of the writer, perhaps a journalist or a teacher, precedes that of the map-maker. An example of such variation is the place name Kasaim in the Kwabre district of the Ashanti Region. It is said that the name originated from the statement "maka na mensan" (i.e. I have said it and I will not rescind my decision). It can be seen that considerable change has had to take place to generate the present name. It is therefore understandable that there are at least three other versions of the spelling: Kasaam, Kasaem and Kasem. Another example showing even more diversity is that of Achowa in the Ahanta West district of the Western Region. In this case the original utterance is said to have been “Ma twe meho”, meaning “I have distanced myself”. There are at least 3 other spellings, namely: Achawa, Achunwa and Atwewa. The demographics of Ghana are still undergoing considerable change. In the absence of an active administrative body with responsibility for monitoring the development of place names it is inevitable that such anomalies will occur.

Akan Vowels

English I A
 Set 1 (ATR)ie æou 
 Set 2 (RTR)ι ε aɔυ
3. A third reason for inconsistency comes from the effect of 'vowel harmony'. Native English-speakers often find this concept very daunting, yet even in colloquial English it is not uncommon to find a primitive unstandardised form in operation. For example, the phrase "I've lost my keys' might well be heard more like "Av lost me keys". In the Akan languages there are 10 pure vowel sounds, divided into 2 related sets², as shown in the table, together with the ambiguous English equivalents. Only the 7 letters shown in blue are actually used in the Akan orthography, so the speaker must substitute the correct vowel sounds according to the context. The rules of VH are complex, but the general rule is that in any one word only vowels from one set should occur. When a compound word is formed, the vowel of the stem may affect that of the preceding syllable. Thus 'wo hu' (you see) becomes 'wuhu'. Whether or not this is reflected in the orthography can be a cause of spelling variation. Moreover, S.G.Obeng has shown³ that in the case of some toponyms the general rule of VH is not followed, because they retain the vowel harmony appropriate to the words which made up the original phrases from which the toponyms are derived. In the course of time, as a toponym becomes 'lexicalised', i.e. understood as a word in its own right, it becomes more likely that the general rule will assert itself.

¹ This booklet is very difficult to obtain publicly. Dr. Atoma Batoma of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, comments on the content in “African Ethnonyms and Toponyms: An Annotated Bibliography”, Electronic Journal of Africana Bibliography, Vol.10, 2006: “This work contains detailed suggestions for solving the problems of standardization of Ghanaian toponymy. The author expresses his deep dissatisfaction with the recording of geographic names in Ghana and reviews the main challenges and obstacles to any real standardization policy. He goes on to provide a definition of place names and lays out the conditions in which they can function as authentic place names. The remainder of the work contains the author’s analysis of two important aspects of Ghanaian topology: writing and spelling.”

² The two vowel sets are technically known as (1) Advanced Tongue Root (ATR), and (2) Retracted Tongue Root (RTR), being physiological descriptions of the process of enunciation.

³ Obeng, SG, "Vowel Harmony and Tone in Akan Toponyms", Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 30, no.2 (2000)

Linking to Linguistics

The following websites have useful further information about writing and speaking African languages in general and Ghanaian languages in particular: